The account of a missionary and linguist who has devoted his life to studying the language and culture of the Piraha in the Amazon, a people who have no numbers, colors, origin story, or perception of anything outside the immediate.
Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes is a fascinating first person account that looks at a culture that is so utterly alien to our own that it’s hard to believe we could ever have anything in common with them.
The Piraha people live in Brazil along the Amazon, and have an hermetically sealed culture that is seemingly impervious to outside influences, mainly because the Piraha believe themselves superior in every way to the rest of the world. In their discourse, they don’t reference anything outside the immediate, and have no words to reflect those sorts of concepts. For example, they don’t use numbers because counting something means that there could be more of a thing, but since the more isn’t right there then there is no more, therefore, no need to count. To put it another way, they use the word “all” indiscriminately. You can still have all of something even after giving part of it away. They don’t discuss the origin of the universe, nor does their cosmology include an afterlife.
This all proved to be fascinating to the author, Daniel L. Everett, as well as spiritually challenging. A linguist, Everett’s main task was to decode Piraha language so that he could translate the Bible for them. He ended up discovering that Piraha violates several key assumptions that linguists had always assumed to be inviolable, and his work revolutionized the field. However, because he was unable to use the Piraha language to explain Christianity to them, Everett came to lose his faith entirely. He ended up being converted to the Piraha’s pragmatism and immediacy.
I can definitely see how the Piraha way of life would present a challenge to evangelical Christianity, with its emphasis on the inner, personal experience of spirituality. But I can’t help but wonder if Everett had been more grounded in orthodox, Reformed Christianity, with its emphasis on God’s intervention in history if he could’ve found a way to solve the problem of presenting Christianity to a people who can’t even fathom the concept of God. The Piraha laughed when Everett gave his testimony, filled as they usually are with tragedy and dramatic spiritual awakenings, because the Piraha believe that people get what they deserve. In one way, they’re like ancient practitioners of the Secret; but in another way it’s like they already get the idea that nobody is entitled to an easy life. Most Christians who spend years in the faith realize that believing in Christ doesn’t guarantee good things. In fact, the opposite can be true. And Christianity shouldn’t be proved on the basis of the number of blessings a believer can count.
I hope that Bible translators don’t give up on Piraha. I’d love to read another book explaining how such a translation is achieved. It’d be fascinating!